Helianthus

The thing about writing poetry is that it’s a pretty solitary experience. Mostly I just think about things quietly in my head, write them down, tinker with them until I’m satisfied and/or finished tinkering, and nobody else is involved except for when something is accepted for publication. Even then, there’s not a lot of back and forth — mostly just confirming availability, publication rights, and other administrative stuff. I miss working with other creative people. I miss the writing group I was part of ten years ago; I miss singing in choirs and, back in dinosaur times, playing in my high school band. Writing poetry is a balm for me, but it can be lonely too.

All of this to say — it was a real pleasure when Canadian composer Frank Horvat contacted me a week or two back, looking for text for a choral piece he wanted to write. Frank has been very moved (as have we all) by the plight of the Ukrainian people, and wondered if I had any poems in my files on the theme of peace? Well, I didn’t, so I wrote him a new one. And while I have had some of my existing poems set to music before, this was the first time I was writing a text specifically for that purpose. It was a fun challenge and I enjoyed collaborating with Frank!

The poem text is called “Helianthus,” which is the scientific name for sunflowers. It draws from a few different things: the language of flowers, specifically around poppies and their role in commemorating those lost in war; the sunflower as Ukraine’s national flower; and my own comfort throughout the pandemic and other turbulent times in my life in the knowledge that whatever else happens, the sun will rise and set, the moon will wax and wane, and the seasons will still turn from one to the next.

“Helianthus” is scored for a cappella treble choir (SSAA). The sheet music is freely available on Frank’s website, and includes the full poem text on the last page. I dearly hope to hear a choir sing it one day — but for now, I’m just very pleased that it exists.

Reading Round-Up: February 2022

You may notice a theme here. Last month I read the following books, most of them door stopper-sized and every one of them by Brandon Sanderson:

  • The Way of Kings
  • Words of Radiance
  • Edgedancer
  • Oathbringer
  • Dawnshard
  • Rhythm of War

Only six books… but those books together held over 1.7 million words, so by that measure it was still a pretty heavy reading month!

These are the books that currently make up Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” series, which is part of his overarching fictional universe, the Cosmere, which is a little hard to explain without ending up looking like this guy:

In my (admittedly still limited) understanding, the Cosmere is a universe in which a group of ~15 persons conspired to and managed to kill their god/the universe’s creative force, Adonalsium, who/which shattered into a bunch of pieces that flew off into different planetary systems. Those sixteen “shards” of godhood/creative force, each carry one aspect of Adonalsium’s divinity (or whatever) and ended up picked up various individuals in each system, who took on each specific aspect/power and functionally became gods of their planetary systems. Each planetary system has its own distinct magic system, and one of the Cosmere’s overarching themes is what happens when fallen humans end up with divine powers. The books in the Cosmere span thousands of years in time, and although each one is set on a particular world, there are characters who appear in different books/worlds, known as “world-hoppers”. With 18 Cosmere books currently in print and something like a total of 40 planned, there is a lot to explore.

Anyway. The six books I read last month take place on the planet Roshar, part of the Rosharan system. Edgedancer and Dawnshard are novellas that fill out the stories of some minor characters. The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer, and Rhythm of War are all novels, part of Sanderson’s planned series of 10, and provide the meat of the story. Point of view rotates between a large cast of characters that gradually expands as the series progresses, detailing the war between the Alethi princedoms and the not-quite-human Parshendi peoples on the enormous battlefield known as the Shattered Plains. In The Way of Kings we begin with the stories of Dalinar Kholin, brother of the Alethi king whose assassination opens the book; Kaladin, a darkeyed slave sent to fight on the plains; Prince Adolin, Dalinar’s son; and Shallan Davar, a young woman sent to steal an important piece of technology from one of the preeminent scholars of the day, in hopes of saving her family’s fortune. From there, things get… considerably more complicated.

One of the things that I absolutely love about Brandon Sanderson’s work is his worldbuilding. Roshar is unlike Earth; it’s also unlike other planets in the Cosmere. It’s a watery world, and its people live on one huge continent (there are many more kingdoms/peoples than the Alethi and Parshendi). Roshar is subject to terrible recurring storms, highstorms, that sweep across the continent from East to West before circling the globe and passing over again. You don’t want to be caught out in a highstorm — but you do want to set out your gems, set in glass spheres, so that they can be refreshed with stormlight. Stormlight is the basis of Roshar’s magic system; captured in gemstones, it functions as currency, provides illumination, and is used to power the “fabrials” of Rosharan technology as well as provide the energy needed by Soulcasters, who can transform materials (people into stone, stone into grain, that sort of thing). Also the animals are mostly crabs which is… surprisingly charming. And unlike in this paragraph, Sanderson doesn’t info-dump his worldbuilding; he just plops you right in the action and you piece it together as you go. I love that.

Sanderson also does some interesting things with Rosharan societies. In the Vorin religion, followed by a large swath of the continent, gender roles are highly stratified: for example, only women are literate. This means that a man who wishes to read a book needs a female scribe to read it to him, which in turn means things like noble Alethis going to war as married couples — the husband to fight and lead troops, and his wife to manage the scouts and any reports that need to be read or sent. In Vorinism, a woman’s most private and erotic body part is her left hand, so Vorin women keep it covered at all times — the poor with a simple glove, and the right with a full encapsulating sleeve. And speaking of rich and poor, Alethi society is a caste system. This one isn’t based on skin colour (they uniformly have tan skin and black hair) but on the lightness or darkness of one’s eyes. The dark-eyed masses make up the lower classes, and the light-eyed rule. Members of the ruling caste are therefore addressed as Brightlord or Brightlady.

This was my second time reading through these books; I first encountered the Stormlight Archive about a year ago, as briefly touched on in last year’s round-up post. It had been long enough that I remembered most of the outlines but had forgotten most of the details, which to my mind is just about the perfect condition for a reread. This month I’ve branched out into further reaches of the Cosmere, which you will hear about (though probably not at this length!) later 🙂 I’m so happy to have discovered Brandon Sanderson’s fiction, and I’m sure that I will be reading him for years to come.

Putter: verb: (2) to work at random

It’s finally my favourite season again. I don’t mean spring, although spring comes into it. I mean the long season that stretches, where I live, from about mid-March through mid-November, the season I like to call Puttering About in the Yard.

I love it.

After what certainly felt like a long winter, it’s lovely to be able to just wander outside in the afternoon and… putter. Yesterday I raked up two bags’ worth of leaves that we didn’t get to in the fall, and uncovered the fig tree from its winter wrappings. Today I’ve washed the patio furniture and brought all the cushions up from storage. Maybe later I’ll rip out some weeds while they’re still relatively dormant and can’t fight back. Or I’ll sort through the storage shed so that all our gardening things are close to hand. Or I’ll start a list of what we’ll need for the garden beds (more mulch; more soil; many more strawberry plants). Or something else. It doesn’t matter; that’s the beauty of Puttering season. There’s always something to do, and you can choose what you like, and it’s all worthy and pleasant, and the stakes are reassuringly low. It’s not work if you’re just puttering.

Perhaps I’ll just sit out here and read a book.

Now, I know that I’m sending up a double-dog dare to the universe by declaring Puttering season open when it’s only mid-March. Our last frost date isn’t until the end of April, and maybe we’ll get another big dump of snow before this is over. But I don’t mind. What is all that compared to the fact that it’s 21°C today, the breeze is warm, and the robins are back? Not much, is what.

So here’s to the spring. Here’s to a full bird feeder and fat nosy squirrels, here’s to the sun on your skin and dirt under your fingernails. Here’s to puttering!

A pandemic pantoum

Last spring, Perpetua’s godmother came to visit us when she was in my city for a weekend — a visit that was technically illegal under Ontario’s then-current pandemic restriction measures, which prohibited gatherings between people not of the same household. I don’t think I’d had a chance to be vaccinated against Covid-19 yet, but she’d had her first dose, and we sat inside with the kitchen window open and the back bathroom fan running so as to create a nice draft. It was the first social visit I’d had with anybody in many months.

I baked a cake for us. Later, I wrote a poem. It’s a pantoum, a form made up interconnected, repeating lines grouped in four-line stanzas. (So in a four-stanza pantoum, the first three would look like 1-2-3-4, 2-5-4-6, 5-7-6-8, with lines from the first stanza coming back around to finish: 7-3-8-1. Clear as mud?) Constructing a poem that made sense with all those lines moving around was a fun challenge, and its repetitive nature was perhaps especially suited to writing about the pandemic given the latter’s own Groundhog Day-style monotony.

“Pandemic Restrictions, Day 402” was recently published by Dunes Review, available for puchase here.

Reading Round-Up: January 2022

Ah, the first books of 2022! It was a big month for fiction in general and fantasy in particular. And you know that thing where you discover a new author, and you enjoy the first book of theirs you read, and then you decide to just read… all of them? Yes, that. Here’s the rundown:

  • Princess Academy (Shannon Hale)
  • Princess Academy: Palace of Stone (Shannon Hale)
  • Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters (Shannon Hale)
  • Austenland (Shannon Hale)
  • Midnight in Austenland (Shannon Hale)
  • Because Internet (Gretchen McCulloch)
  • Cryoburn (Lois McMaster Bujold)
  • Welcome to Dunder Mifflin (Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman)
  • The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Wandering Fire (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Darkest Road (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Postman (David Brin) *did not finish

My kids love Shannon Hale’s early reader series, The Princess in Black [and the yada yada] and I thought I’d try out her Princess Academy series, which is more middle grade. It’s nothing like you’re probably assuming from the name, and all three books were great reads. (And fast — there’s nothing like reading three novels in three days to make you feel like you’re starting the year off right!) Miri lives a simple life with her father and sister on a Mount Eskel, where her village mines for valuable linder stone. But when a prophecy reveals that the next heir to the throne will marry a girl from her village, Miri finds herself in the “princess academy” from which the prince will choose a bride in a year’s time. Needless to say, things don’t turn out to be as straightforward as advertised. This was a really enjoyable little trilogy.

Austenland is one of Hale’s adult novels, a light romance set at an exclusive — like, sign-an-NDA-exclusive — Jane Austen-themed retreat where staff and guests live a fully immersive Regency-era experience (albeit with indoor plumbing). Pride and Prejudice-obsessed New Yorker Jane Hayes is gifted a fortnight at the retreat courtesy of her aunt, who hopes that it will help Jane to sort out her romantic ideals. Guests at Pembrook Park can enjoy some genteel flirting with the actors who fill out the scene — but where is the line between handsome “Mr Nobley” and the man who plays him? And is he in love with “Miss Erstwhile,” her Regency-era alternate identity, or with Jane herself? It’s a light, fun read.

I went into Midnight in Austenland blind, expecting more of the above. It’s still a quasi-Regency romance set at Pembrook Park, with some recurring characters as well as a new protagonist — but it’s also a creepy murder mystery, complete with actual corpse. Um, what? Still enjoyable, but it also kind of gave me whiplash.

Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet is definitely the most fascinating book I read this month. McCulloch is a linguist with a particular interest in informal writing, something that we’ve never really been able to study at any sort of scale until the advent of the internet. Why do some people think it’s passive-aggressive to punctuate the end of text messages? What’s with the parallel evolution of emoticons and emojis? How did we start using ~sparkle text~ for irony and the “/s” tag for sarcasm? Why do Boomers capitalize so much of their messages (LOL)? How (and why) do memes work? Gretchen McCulloch will tell you!

Cryoburn is either the 15th or 18th or 22nd installment of Lois McMaster Bujold’s sprawling Vorkosigan saga, depending on if you’re counting in internal chronology or publication order, and whether or not you think short stories or only novels count as “installments”. At any rate, it’s well towards the end of the series, and of the read-through I started back in the fall. I don’t even know where to begin in terms of summing things up, but it’s all glorious space opera, and if you’re a sci-fi fan even a little, they’re worth your time. Start with either Cordelia’s Honor or The Warrior’s Apprentice.

Welcome to Dunder Mifflin was my only other foray into the nonfiction section this month; it’s a collected oral history of The Office drawn from interviews conducted by Brian Baumgartner for his podcast… The Oral History of the Office (hmm). I’d listened to most of the podcast so there wasn’t really any new information in the book for me, but hey, at least there were pictures.

The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road make up Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. I was first introduced to these books, and to Kay’s writing, when I was assigned The Summer Tree as an independent reading project in grade nine (thank you, Mrs. R), and I scored an omnibus edition at a library book sale when I was in undergrad. He is one of my favourite fantasy authors now, and this trilogy has been a companion of mine for many years. The story begins when five Toronto men and women go to hear a public lecture at UofT’s Convocation Hall — but are then summoned by the mage Loren Silvercloak to his home world, the world from which all worlds are spun, Fionavar. Although they are only supposed to be there for a week or two, as an exotic present for a reigning king, they are quickly drawn into magic, intrigue, and a desperate war against the fallen god, Rakoth Maugrim. It’s fantastic stuff.

Finally, The Postman by David Brin. I don’t usually keep track of books that I don’t finish, but I read enough (about 2/3rds, plus the last chapter) that I think it counts. The Postman is a post-acpocalyptic novel set in the United States around the turn of the millennium. After years of pandemics, nuclear attacks, and civil skirmishes, what’s left of the country has dissolved into small pockets of survivors: communes, nascent fiefdoms, dens of burglars, and lone wanderers. Gordon Krantz is one such wanderer, who comes across a USPS uniform in Oregon, dons it, and begins conning a nation back into being. The Postman has been made into a movie and won a whole bunch of awards, and I wanted to like it. But while the concept is very interesting, I found the writing clunky and dated, and Brin kept bringing his characters to the brink of action and then using chapter breaks to fast-forward right past it. Great idea, less than stellar execution. This was a disappointing read.

And that’s a wrap!